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Published by The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, 1963 

All Rights Reserved 

Library of Congress Catalogue Card Number: 63-18377 

Printed in The j\etherlands 

Cezanne and Structure in Modern Painting is an educational 
commentary that has been prepared in connection with an 
exhibition bearing the same title at The Solomon R. Guggen- 
heim Museum. However, the thoughts expressed in this 
booklet by Mr. Daniel Robbins, Assistant Curator of the 
Museum, have general validity and extend beyond the ex- 
hibition framework. 

A commentary, similarly conceived, and exploring Van Gogh 
in relation to expression in, 20th century painting is envisaged 
as a future publication of the Guggenheim Museum. 

Thomas M. Messer, Director 


The present is always reinterpreting the past, not only 
in economics and politics but also in art. Almost invariably the 
painters of one era build upon earlier art, using the living 
example of painting and extracting from it what they most 
need for their own expression and interests. What painters 
build upon or extract from an earlier painter becomes the most 
important aspect of immediate history, and remains living and 
vital in the art of a later time. 

One measure of the greatness of Cezanne is the extent 
to which diverse artists of later movements have claimed a 
portion of his art as stimulation and ancestor to their own : the 
Nabis, Kandinsky and the Munich expressionists, the cubists, 
de Stijl and the Russian constructivists, and even, somewhat 
surprisingly, the surrealists. Today, he is acknowledged as the 
fountainhead of 20th century painting and to a large extent 
contemporary critics depend on his visual assertions for their 
aesthetic principles. 

One logical reason Cezanne should have become such a 
potent influence is that within himself he united widely diver- 
gent sources. Attention has often been called to his reverence 
for the 17th century French master Poussin, whom — according 
to an oft-quoted remark — Cezanne wished "to revive in the 
contact with nature."^ This sentiment directed toward the 
purest of French 17th century classicists is seemingly rein- 
forced by another well-known aim of Cezanne: "I want to 
create of impressionism something solid and durable like the 
art of museums." These words highlight a dominant interpre- 
tation of Cezanne's historical importance as leader of a strong 
tendency in 20th century art that may be called "structural" 
or "formal". 

Although concentrating on "structuralism" or "formal- 
ism" as the major aspect of Cezanne's impact on our century, 
we should not forget that Cezanne, even while admiring the 
classical Poussin and the calin Chardin, also counseled young 
artists to study Veronese, Rubens, and Delacroix, painters 
whose fluid emotion and violence one tends to identify with 

1. John Rewald, Paul Cezanne, A Biography, New York, Simon and 
Schuster, 1948, p. 135. 

later expressionistic developments in modern art. The aspect 
of Cezanne's work emphasized in this booklet is by no means 
the entire story. 

Many critics under the impact of Cezanne and the 
cubist revolution became convinced that the literary aspect of 
painting, its story-telling or narrative functions, were of no 
aesthetic importance. In the view of most advanced thinkers 
earlier in our century, the merit of painting depended entirelv 
on the relationships among its forms and colors. Inherent in 
this view was the belief that imitation of the forms or colors 
of perceived reality had no effect on the value or importance of 
the painting. Whether a canvas was good or not good depended 
upon successful solutions of composition, balance and harmony. 
Obviously, Cezanne — and even the cubists — were not abstract. 
Nevertheless, the aesthetic treatment demanded by his work 
is the major — perhaps the only — basis on which, until quite 
recently, we judged most abstract painting. 

In the early years of this century, the stress of art 
appreciation and understanding fell upon purely formal values : 
the arrangement of lines and forms; the solidity and coherence 
of the shapes painted in terms of the space they described, all 
subordinated to an overall rhythm; the fundamental order that 
was constructed by the painter. For the first time in history the 
enjoyment and understanding of painting became inseparable 
from concepts of plasticity. There was room for emotion in 
these 20th century theories of art, but this emotion was never 
uncontrolled, it was never violent and, above all, it was never 
sentimental. Instead, it was almost invariably associated with 
the intellectual pleasure of discovering relations between forms 
and colors, with the detached joy of apprehending the structural 
key to a work of art. 

Paul Cezanne attained his position as historical key to 
this most important ''''formaV direction in modern painting 
because structure as a primary concern is so magnificently re- 
vealed in his canvases. In contrast, most of his contemporaries 
now seem to have been more concerned with capturing ephem- 
eral effects of nature. While Cezanne was deeply concerned 
with permanence, ivith the underlying stability of nature, his 
impressionist colleagues were bewitched by change — change 
of time, of season, of atmosphere. 

For one thing, Cezanne's desire to fix his sensations in 
front of nature led him to employ a strong structural frame- 
ivork. As his work progressed over the years, a satisfying sense 
of pattern arose from the interaction of these frequently 
employed lines and the short, usually parallel, brushstrokes 
he used to apply pigment. His technique emphasized and 
fattened the pattern, even while he grappled with the diffi- 
culties of communicating the solidity and volume of objects 
and space. 

It was the solution of these seemingly contradictory 
problems that led Cezanne to a conscious realization that the 
canvas was to be treated as a two dimensional surface. Ulti- 
mately, this solution also led to our concept that the funda- 
mental reality in painting must be the painting itself rather 
than any reality depicted. 

In Cezanne's work, much of the interest arises from the 
tension betiveen the solidity of the forms and the sense of 
volume, from the disposition of these solid elements in aflat 
manner upon aflat surface. We are confronted with a drama 
of formal relationships in which the coordination of physical 
reality with intellectual order is a masterful accomplish- 

Regardless of subject, ivhether landscape, still life, or portrait, 
Cezanne's mature paintings carefully define the visual relationships 
among planes. In his hands, planes were used to establish the surfaces 
of the subject, but they were modulated with careful attention to color 
or tonal differences. Although these differences arose from the rela- 
tionship of color to light — and Cezanne's concern for color and light 
is certainly traceable to his early impressionist interests — his funda- 
mental emphasis on plane was dictated by a realization that fixed 
lines do not exist in nature. ^^Pure draiving is an abstraction," he said. 
"While one paints, one draws; the more the color harmonizes, the 
more precise becomes the drawing."^ A very general understanding 
of his technique is contained in some advice written to Emile Bernard: 
''In an orange, an apple, a ball, a head, there is a culminating point 
and this point is always — despite the tremendous effect of light and 
shade and sensations of color — the closest to our eye." 

In "The Clockmaker", a painting from about 1895 to 1900, 
Cezanne was very careful to detail the portion of the head closest to 
the spectator, the nose. He did this by creating a series of planes that 
examine the extent of its projection, thus carefully defining its form. 
Similarly, the eyes, the mouth, the cheekbones are defined; the jaw is 
even distorted, but this distortion does not result so much from an 
attempt to convey character as from an effort to demonstrate its shape 
and thrust. Through the careful establishment of these planes, a 
quality of movement is imparted to the extraordinary head. 

Looking further, we realize that a similar emphasis on plane 
exists throughout the canvas, each part of which depends on another. 
The neck is painted at a very specific angle to the jaw and, in the 
same way, a certain relationship is established between the neck and 
the clothed figure. Each part is visualized and painted in sensitively 
balanced planes ; each describes in the most precise fashion the loca- 
tion of parts in a constructed space. Finally, we note that a plane on 
the model's right crossed arm is the area that is virtually closest to our 

In looking at a picture such as this, where all the elements are 
so exquisitely defined, where even the atmosphere appears to have 
been given shape, ive are struck by the coordination of all the forms 
into an overall rhythm that is at once dynamic and austere. The figure 
of the clockmaker is monumental, not only because of its solid and 
fully understandable reality, but also because its accessories, the 
chair, the dado, the canvas and palette, all contribute to the total 
equilibrium of the painting. 

1. All quotations appear as translated in John Reivald, Paul Cezanne, A Biography, 
New York, Simon and Schuster, 1948. 

PAUL CEZANNE 1839-1906 

THE CLOCKIIAKER 1895-1900. Oil on canvas, 36^X 28i 

I. mmm m cubism 

The last decade of Cezanne's life was spent in the south 
of France, well-removed from Paris and increasingly isolated 
from the center of artistic fashion. Only occasionally did he 
consent to exhibit at the large salons, with the result that when 
he died in 1906 his importance was appreciated mainly by his 
old impressionist colleagues and by a narrow circle of younger 
painters (none of whom were to emerge as cubists). At the 
time, most of the art world regarded him as a barbarian, a 
"carpenter of color". 

In the following year, however, there was a major 
Cezanne retrospective of over fifty paintings at the Salon 
d'Automne. The future cubists were in their mid-twenties and 
some of them, especially Picasso and Braque, were already 
experienced painters whose work was leading in a direction 
that made them ripe to appreciate the qualities of Cezanne. 
Others, like Delaunay, Metzinger and Gleizes, had been either 
pupils of artists already familiar with Cezanne, or closely 
associated with a group of writers whose idealistic views on the 
nature of art predisposed them to sympathize with Cezanne. 

In terms of visual appearance, Cezanne's composition, 
his careful juxtaposition of planes, and his unhesitating readi- 
ness to adjust forms to the overall needs of the picture plane, 
exerted the most profound influence on the young painters. In 
terms of intellectual conclusions, it was clear to them that the 
structure of a painting made it a tangible reality in itself, a 
reality free from the objects it had begun by representing. This 
lesson became the premise of all formal abstract art in the 
20th century. 

During his lifetime, Cezanne had written or said a great 
deal that appears to strengthen the conclusions drawn from his 
work by cubists and later abstract artists. But although one of 
his most famous dicta was: "see in nature the cylinder, the 
sphere, the cone . . . ", one sees very little of these particular 

geometric forms in Cezanne's paintings. Furthermore, most of 
his statements were unknown to artists during the vital years of 
cubism's development. It is also important to remember that 
for Cezanne, the depiction of nature and the understanding of 
nature's light through color was of primary significance. The 
cubists built their art upon a final result of Cezanne's work, but 
that result was nevertheless almost incidental to the master's 
basic intention in which the balance of perceived nature and 
pictorial order remained his essential preoccupation. 

In their fundamental (and revolutionary) emphasis on 
pictorial order, the cubists drew support from Cezanne's 
numerous unfinished paintings and frequently even from the 
unfinished appearance of those canvases or watercolors that 
Cezanne felt he had finished. Toward the end of his life, the 
master wTote: "Now, being old, nearly seventy years, the sen- 
sations of color, which give Hght, are the reasons for the ab- 
stractions which prevent me from either covering my canvas or 
continuing the delimitation of objects when their points of 
contact are fine and delicate; from which it results that my 
image or picture is incomplete ..." This touching comment 
reveals how deeply Cezanne felt the difference between con- 
cepts of an innate structure or order in nature and the freshness 
of his immediate sensations when actually looking at nature. It 
was precisely because motifs and sensations, those key ideas 
of the impressionists, were so important to him that he would 
never consider an abstract painting anything but an unfinished 

In 1903, he wrote to Vollard, "lam working obstinately: 
I am beginning to see the promised land. Shall I be hke the 

leader of the Hebrews, or shall I be able to enter it?" If the 
promised land was cubism, which so logically developed out of 
the painting and compositional techniques of Cezanne, the old 
master would not have wished to enter it. 

Nevertheless, the early cubists saw between themselves 
and Cezanne "only a difference of intensity." In the first book 
on cubism, Gleizes and Metzinger wrote: "To understand 
Cezanne is to foresee cubism," and they went on to explain 
how the art of painting had passed from depiction of super- 
ficial reality, the mere appearance of things, to understanding 
the profound reality of form. "To discern a form," they wrote, 
"is to verify a pre-existent idea." They pointed out that in this 
process of verification, or seeing, all individual and cultural 
experience intervened. In other words, in looking at a shape, 
one must be aware that all its dimensions are not visible from 
a single point of view. Cubist painting w'as no longer to convey 
false illusions, but was to expand the engagement of reality 
and communicate a great deal more of what the painter felt and 
knew. "Let the picture imitate nothing" declared the cubists, 
and they meant most particularly that it should not imitate 
space by using convergent lines of perspective. There were tw^o 
reasons for this dictum : that in reality forms do not converge 
in space ; and that the surface space of the picture plane is flat 
and should not under any circumstances be confused with the 
extended space of the world we see. 

The formulation of such propositions and their deriva- 
tion and interaction with the practice of painting constituted 
the basis for cubism, the most complete artistic revolution 
since the Renaissance. 

One reason still life was popular ivith certain cubists, especially 
Braque, Picasso, and Juan Gris, ivas because its real penetration of 
space was naturally limited. It also provided a clear opportunity for 
painters to experiment with the analysis of relatively few forms and, 
in doing so, to demonstrate that the most commonplace visual percep- 
tion could be endowed with astonishing richness. 

In this canvas, '^Violin and Palette", the violin is examined 
from several viewpoints at the same time. The elegant twist of its 
neck scroll presents visual analogies to the curve of the violin body 
and to the familiar cuts of the "/" shaped sound holes, incisions 
ivhose thin curves on the surface plane are given depth or flatness as 
the planes beneath them alter our point of view. The graceful curves 
of the violin are repeated in the palette at the top of the canvas, meas- 
ured against the counter rhythm of the curtain to its right, suggesting 
further visual and mental associations. The strings of the violin are 
made analogous to the staff lines of the music, music which is itself 
treated to bring out the crinkly, almost fluid quality of paper compared 
to the solid and fixed form of a violin. Because of the distortion of the 
right hand page of music, we can almost hear the snap of the heavy 
paper; because of the ivay in ivhich the musical lines run off the page, 
we are certainly conscious of the difficulty a musician might have in 
making the music book lie flat. 

The whole picture is treated as a unity ivith limited and sober 
color used to reinforce its structure. Although the principle view of the 
violin draws our gaze downivard, and although it is clearly located 
in front of the music ivhich is at eye level, there is no division of the 
painting into fore-, middle and backgrounds. In this treatment of an 
independent reality, all of the shapes are integrated and balanced 
against each other. Everything is in its proper place. But when a line 
was needed to reinforce a rhythm, Braque did not hesitate to paint it. 
For example, the fold in the sheet music was made to continue through 
the violin, thus establishing an axial division doivn the narrow can- 
vas. Similarly, the strong parallel brush strokes emphasize the divi- 
sion of the violin and music into discreet areas and planes and, above 
all, they remind, us by their strength and by the quality of touch that 
we are examining a PAINTING. This painting is proud to be a 
painting, not a reproduction of a violin and palette in a room. 


VIOLIX AXD PALETTE 1910. Oil on canvas, 36\X 161" 


In October of 1917. the Dutch pamters Piet Mondrian, 
Theo van Doesburg and Bart van der Leek, brought out the 
first issue of the art review "De Stijl." It included the first part 
of a long essav called "Xeo-Plasticism" in which Mondrian 
verbalized his thoughts on painting and art. To what he felt 
\vas a logical continuation of cubism, he consciously added the 
important principle that all artists ought to help create a 
common plastic art suited to the needs of an organic societv. 
The artists of "De Stijl" envisioned an art of such universal 
harmonv that its absolute principles could be applied, like 
natural laws, to all artifacts made and used by man. 

Mondrian rather optimistically believed that harmonv 
and unitv -were inherent characteristics of man's mind. He was 
convinced that these elements would find pictorial expression 
if the artist concentrated on balanced relations between primarv 
colors and the juxtaposition of flat planes set at right angles, 
for the right angle brought into equilibrium two extremes; it 
reconciled opposing forces. Furthermore, Mondrian was con- 
vinced that if art led the way in estabHshing harmony, if its 

principles were integrated into all artifacts of the modern en- 
vironment, "unity in man will also grow toward the positive 
and determinate." 

Around the turn of the century, Mondrian's intellect 
had been influenced by the Dutch symbolists who had sought 
to establish an art of spiritual rather than literal truth. Although 
this early stimulus was partially responsible for his ideaHsm, 
the critical factor for development of his painting was his 
familiarity with cubism. He had spent the years 1911 to 1914 in 
Paris where, Kke the cubists, he learned that the internal struc- 
tural relations among objects were more important than their 
external shapes. For a while he found satisfaction in the use of 
the surface-defining plane, but within a few years he decided 
that the cubists lacked courage, that they were unwilling to 
follow their own premises to their logical conclusion : concern 
only for composition, structure and unity. If this principle and 
its inherent disregard for the physical appearance of nature 
were to be fully applied, Mondrian argued, the orderly essence 
of the universe could be abstracted and revealed for mankind. 

A broadly similar development had already occurred in 
Russia, where, by 1913, Malewich had established a kind of 
painting "suprematism", by which he meant the "supremacy 
of PURE emotion in art". Although he had not been to Paris, 
Malewich had also undergone a formative experience with 
cubism by means of reproductions in magazines, exhibitions, 
and exposure to the great cubist paintings amassed by eager 
Moscow collectors. In considering a canvas such as his 1913 
black square on a white ground, it is perhaps difficult for us to 
conceive of such simple geometric forms as "pure emotion", 
but these words indicate the degree to which Malewich wished 
to purge emotion, like form, of all vitiating or weakening ele- 
ments. In his view, emotion ought not to be clouded by senti- 
ment any more than pure construction should be weighed 
down by representational "ballast". He wished to distill an 
absolute truth from the welter of experience. 

''Morning in the Country After Rain", 1911, shoivs Malewich 
adjusting cubism to the needs of his oivn temperament and environ- 
ment. Unlike the traditional cubist still life already discussed {see 
p. 17), the subject here implies deep space since it is a landscape of a 
Russian village. Because the subject involves space, and because it 
also suggests social activity, Malewich seems to be more closely allied 
to the works of the cubists Le Fauconnier, Leger and Gleizes than to 
those of Picasso and Braque. In his treatment of space, Malewich 
— like Le Fauconnier and Gleizes — suggests distance by means of scale 
rather than perspective. {For example, the ivomen carrying pails are 
much larger than the striding man who pulls a sledge.) Instead of 
splintering forms into a myriad complex of planes — in the manner of 
Picasso and Braque — Maleivich simplifies shapes into major geo- 
metrical figures: skirts as trapezoids; hats and roofs as triangles; 
walls and ivindows as parallelograms and squares; smoke from 
chimneys as circles. 

Almost all of these forms are solidly modeled but, from the 
point of vieiv of light, this is done in an entirely arbitrary fashion. 
The woman on the right wears a bright red skirt which fades into 
white on one side, while her upper garment blends from black through 
grey to white in the opposite direction. This treatment, even the 
reversal, is exactly the opposite in the color arrangement of the other 
woman. As a consequence, a dynamic rhythm is imparted to both 
figures, creating a motion that seems to emphasize the purposeful 
treatment of their feet, expressing the quality of their movement as 

Again in contrast to the Braque still life, the Maleivich colors 
are few but very bright. Through repetition, they operate as an im- 
portant factor in the total organization of the picture plane, for our 
eyes tend immediately to relate all the forms of one hue, all the bright 
reds or all the intense blues. By his repeated application of intense 
colors the artist has overcome the effect of depicted depth. Because the 
red of the sky and distant rooftops is as vibrant as the red of a skirt, 
the objects that are further away in natural reality are made to con- 
form to the flat picture plane in the reality of this painting. 


MORXIXG IX THE COV.VTHY AFTER RAIX 1911. Oil on canvas, 31\X 31^ 

This exceptionally rich and complex canvas indicates Mon- 
drian's experimentation ivith the arrangement of color planes and 
black lines in order to achieve a unified floiv of space. At the time this 
painting was made, Mondrian had left cubism but, as the black, blue 
and shades of ochre and rose attest, he had not yet decided to reduce 
his palette to primary colors alone. Despite his preoccupation with 
compositional order, Mondrian in 1916 was still attracted by the sen- 
sual quality of pigment. This is most apparent near the perimeter 
where he varied his tones and permitted us to see the struggle betiveen 
the rectangular, semi-erased black lines and the grey areas. It is 
this struggle, in ivhich the greys gain an advantage, that modifies 
the ivhole format into an elegant oval. 

Like the Malewich painting of a Russian village — but even 
more consistently and more subtly — Mondrian here relates each plane 
to others of the same color. As the pattern produced by each color 
emerges, we discover swift diagonal curves which are countered and 
controlled by the uncompromising rectangularity of the black lines. 
In fact, whether read as groups of separate colors or as groups of one 
color flickering in contrast to those of different colors, any series of 
planes tends to establish a sweeping diagonal rhythm. This rhythm 
varies in intensity because Mondrian has modulated tones and the 
area covered by each tone, reducing both brilliance and scale toward 
the edges of the picture. 

In order to make the painting structurally balanced as ivell as 
fluid, Mondrian had to insure the regularity of the composition, had to 
maintain order among all these vibrant squares. To achieve this, he 
has used a grey tone which, through its interaction ivith the black 
lines, governs the floiv of color among the various other squares. In 
effect, ivith but feiv interruptions, this grey ground allows space to 
flow on the sava^ plane from one grey square and rectangle to another. 
In contrast, however, the black right-angled: lines rarely permit any 
colored square {blue or ochre or rose) to flow into another even though 
they frequently allow the grey to pass through. This flow, however, is 
always regulated to produce right angles. 

Finally, this particular Composition gives us an unusual op- 
portunity to examine the extent of Mondrian s preoccupation with 
overall balance. At the bottom of the canvas, by joining a i inch strip 
of wood, he was able to paint two horizontal black lines on a grey 
ground. These lines fix the composition irrevocably, keeping it utterly 
stable within the dimensions of the painting, reconciling diversity 
with harmony. 

PIET MONDRIAN 1872-1944 

CO.nPOSITIO\ 1916. Oil on canvas and ivood strip, 47\X29Y 

in. THE umm 

Guillaume Apollinaire in 1913 wrote: "Neither the new 
painters nor their elders intended to be geometricians. But one 
might say that geometry is to the plastic arts what grammar is 
to writing."^ By the end of the first world war, great numbers 
of advanced painters had accepted geometric forms as the 
primary basis of their art. The disposition of these forms, 
however, was not confined to the regularizing horizontals and 
verticals so masterfully handled by Mondrian (see p. 23). In 
the Bauhaus, as in Russia, many artists employed shooting 
diagonal lines, curves and circles to express a sense of tremen- 
dous movement in space. 

Building on the doctrine that created works were to be 
expressions of their own absolute reality rather than reproduc- 
tions of a pre-existent reality, it became clear that art was, in 
fact, design and that design was art. The form of a machine, 
for example, could be considered in the same way as a painting 
or sculpture. In formal terms, it could be beautiful or ugly in 

1. Guillaume Apollinaire, Les Pelntres Cubistes, Paris, Eugene Figuiere, 
1913, p. 17. 

relation to the beauty or clarity of its design. The very precision 
and logic of this new geometric art were also qualities of a 
machine; the principles of both were absolute and, once 
created, unchangeable. 

Although aesthetic consideration of a machine might be 
made purely on the basis of its design, of its ability to work 
efficiently as interacting forms, it was also possible to consider 
its formal qualities, or design, in relation to its function, or 
production. It qualified as a totally new genre of art with a 
capacity to generate a fresh standard of beauty and to fuse art 
and life in a new and ideal society. Because it was believed that 
art could be completely integrated with Hfe, and that it was 
valid in any medium, artists became increasingly preoccupied 
with the application of design principles to the world of 
technology. One Russian, Rodchenko, even declared that there 
was no further need for painting and devoted himself entirely 
to industrial design and typography. 

Perhaps the most fruitful union of all these tendencies 
emphasizing the aesthetic independence of constructed works 
took place at the Bauhaus, in Germany. The Bauhaus was a 
school, first in Weimar and then in Dessau, which merged the 
teaching of "fine" and "applied" arts and, as illustrated by its 
great stress on architecture, made it impossible to separate the 
two. Its ultimate purpose was to integrate the new principles of 
art into man's contemporary environment. To accomplish this 
end, it selected as professors many of the great masters and 
innovators of abstract art. These men, through their work, 
through the curriculum they developed, and through their 
pupils, were most directly responsible for the concept o 
"functionalism" in modern aesthetics. Thus, artists like 
Moholy-Nagy not only created paintings, but also designed 
type faces, books, and objects. Simultaneously, however, men 
such as Klee and Kandinsky developed the application of 
formal and precise techniques to the expression of human 
experience and feeling. 

Hungarian-born Laszlo Moholy-Nagy had absorbed most of 
the principles of Russian constructivism before 1923 when he joined 
the Bauhaus faculty. The canvas "y^ //", dating from the following 
year, illustrates hoiv totally divorced an individual work had become 
from any association outside of its own immediate structure and ap- 
pearance. Even its title, ".4 //", helps to establish this independence. 

On the natural linen of the canvas, a neat black parallelogram 
has been constructed. Where it is intersected by a smaller bright yellow 
parallelogram, a red circle has been overlaid and it is apparent that 
this circle governs the precarious meeting of opposing color values. 
For example, where the red circle overlaps both the yelloiv and black, 
a brownish tone rather like that of the natural canvas appears. This 
hue contrasts ivith the color produced by yelloiv over black or by red 
over black, both resulting from the overlap of only two planes. The 
color changes in the major (upper) configuration are extraordinarily 
complex, yet if we notice the paler echo of these relationships toward 
the lower left, where scale and proportion have been reduced, we may 
discover still more intricate transparent overlays. Here the lemon 
yellow — a reflection of the bright yellow above — passes through a 
white plane which also determines the exact value of the lightest pink 
as this plane intersects the small reprise of the upper circle. 

By their placement, angularity and proportions, both con- 
figurations establish an extremely strong movement in a constructed 
space. Across the canvas this motion is read as an upward and out- 
ivard thrust, ivith the smaller, paler series of transparent planes below 
and behind the upper and more intense set. Within a context estab- 
lished by color and geometrical forms, Moholy-Nagy has trans- 
formed what ivould seem to be simple and regulated means into an 
intellectually challenging and stimulating drama of forces. 


A II 1924. Oil on canvas, 4.5|X o3i" 

Paul Klee, like Moholy-Nagy, was a professor at the Bauhaus. 
But unlike many of his colleagues, his main concern was not the 
creation of ivork so rigidly free from outer associations. Instead, he 
desired to exploit conscious and unconscious human experiences, 
directing these through the delicate filter of his temperament but 
expressing them ivith the tools of plastic — even abstract — forms. 

In ^''The Open Book^\ Klee has arranged geometric forms so 
that they incline and rotate in a constructed depth. Only one of these 
forms, hoivever, {at the right) has any thickness or definable solidity. 
The others are surrounded by a network of fine scratchy lines that 
create a glow, not of real atmosphere but of mental reverence. While 
the rendering and distribution of these shapes create an illusion not 
unlike the leaves of a book, it is clear that a real book is not imitated 
and that the artist did not attempt to abstract the essence of a book's 
form. Rather, within the interlocking structure, itself satisfying to 
look at because of its restful harmony, Klee tried to visualize his 
feelings about the book, to suggest something poetic and profound 
about the idea of a book. He used geometric means toward entirely 
emotional ends; he reinforced the reverent mood with an exotic 
texture and rich brown color reminiscent of old leather binding. 

The picture gives an impression of opening, of unfolding like 
a book, and this analogy reveals the deliberate and delicate humor of 
the artist. The outermost forms recall leather binding, the ivhite 
gloiving pages are treated like old foxed paper. The deep content of 
the book is fixed in black mystery and, ivell ivithin, ivefind a triangle 
with tiny brown squares : the mystery of the printed word. While the 
picture is complete in itself as a structure, the structure is treated so as 
to invite and excite emotional associations. 

PAUL KLEE 1879-1940 

OPEX BOOK, E6 1930. Oil on canvas, 17iX 16^'' 


The originators of the concept that estabhshed con- 
struction, composition, arrangement of forms and color rela- 
tionships as the primary qualities of art continued to develop 
and refine their painting, always struggling to achieve the 
]>urity of their goal. Many new artists were drawn to the effort, 
with the result that by the 1920's it had become the dominant 
mode of plastic expression. Its influence on our century has 
been so pronounced that all art — even that of the distant past — 
has come to be discussed in terms of new key words such as 
composition, structure, balance, tension and related concepts 
such as visual problems and solutions. 

In recent years, however, large numbers of artists have 
systematically challenged the formal and orderly in painting. 
Their work has given rise to concepts of the informal, the anti- 
compositional, or even the anti-art as elements necessary to our 
appreciation of works of art. Our acceptance of the structural 
concept is so strong that we can only talk about this challenge 
to it by using its own standards and terms in a negative inver- 
sion. To be sure, much contemporary painting arises from 
another tradition, surrealism, which became an avant-garde 
just when the structural current became dominant — although 
it had far earlier roots in expressionist painting. But it is also 
true that to place primary emphasis on factors other than 
structural integrity was an age-old feature of art and, even in 
precise geometric abstraction, some artists consciously re- 
tained the seed of inner meaning, insisting that the work of art 
was more than the sum of its parts and that even if it could 
be rationally constructed, its essential nature was mysterious, 
inexplicable and emotional. 

We have already observed how Paul Klee was as con- 
cerned as any artist of his time with line, plane, depth, motion, 
color and proportion. Employing these fundamental attributes 
of his vision and painting, he nevertheless emphasized a deep, 
even romantic, engagement of nature and human feelings. We 
may conveniently take Klee as a signpost for an important 
direction toward contemporary art: a tendency toward im- 
mediate emotional expression which is still presented in essen- 
tially geometric terms. Similarly, a good deal of the so-called 
hard-edge painting and the blurred single-image canvases of 
today are able to use the techniques and means of traditional 
geometric construction for intensely personal and emotional 
ends. Reversing the previous tendency of most artists who 
worked along structural, formal lines, gradually stripping and 
simplifying their vocabulary, the contemporary formalists are 
inserting, adding elements, using simplified techniques for 
complex expression rather than pure design. 

Josef Alters, ivho in 1933 left the Bauhaus to work in the 
United States, has evolved an art ivhere the primary effect is emotional 
and sometimes closely tied to nature. Although the basic arrange- 
ment of squares on the canvas is present throughout his continuous 
series, ^'Homage to the Square''"', each ivork is totally different in 
effect, beauty and interest. To a large extent, this extraordinary and 
often unsuspected variety depends on the interaction of simple forms 
with very complicated color arrangements. In effect, Albers is a magi- 
cian with color. He has distinguished between the physical fact of 
color and its psychological impact according to the context in which 
it is placed. He can make different colors look identical, and he can 
make a single color look like two. He can create color where none 
exists, turning a grey into violet or yellow. The visual consequences of 
such color magic are enormous, but one of the most obvious is an 
intense sense of flashing movement. 

This canvas is composed of three squares painted upon a fourth 
square ivhich is defined by the edge of the canvas. Each is placed in 
precisely identical relationship to its enclosing neighbor. However, 
the series is not proportional to the square of the canvas itself because 
its progression is downward instead of toicard the center. This down- 
ward motion is emphasized by the horizontal color areas ivhich, 
simply because of their ividth, create completely different effects at the 
top and bottom of the painting. Thus, their greater width at the top 
provides stability while their narroivness at the bottom fosters rapid 
and changing relationships between each band and its neighbor. 

To illustrate the infinite consequences of this seemingly simple 
fact, consider the effects produced by just one aspect of this painting : 
the warm green bands across the top and bottom, varying from each 
other only in ividth. Because it seems warmer at the top than at the 
bottom, we tend to read the outer square, reinforced by diagonal lines, 
as projecting; but at the bottom we tend to read the same outer square 
as receding. Refusing to hold still, the entire structure moves back and 
forth. Similarly, each facet of the painting contributes to its changing 
effect. The more one looks, the more baffling the picture becomes, 
moving, shimmering, sometimes allowing the yellow square to jump 
fonvard, sometimes thrusting it back; sometimes encouraging the grey 
square to look warm, sometimes forcing it be seem cold. 

Thus, for all the regularity of the shapes and flatness of the 
few actual colors applied, this painting is wholly equivocal in effect. 
In terms of the conventional sense of the structural aesthetic, it pro- 
duces a sense of frustration for it forces the viewer to recognize tension 
within balance, ambiguity within precision, and change within 
established relationships. 


HOIHAGE TO THE SQVARE: APPAKiTIOX 1959. Oil on board, 47^X47\ 



Thomas M. Messer 


Cynthia Fay 


Lawrence A lie way 

Associate Curator 

Louise Averill Svendsen 

Assistant Curator 

Daniel Robbins 

Public Affairs 

Evelyn von Ripper 


Sally McLean 


Arlene B. Dellis 


Orrin Riley and Saul Fuerstein 


Robert E. Mates 

Business Administrator 
Administrative Assistant 
Office Manager 

Glenn H. Easton, Jr. 
Viola H. Gleason 
Agnes R. Connolly 

Building Superintendent Peter G. Loggin 
Head Guard George J. Sauve 

5,000 copies of COMMENTARY 1163 

designed by Herbert Matter, 

have been printed by Joh. Enschede en Zonen, Haarlem, 

in May 1963 

for the Trustees of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation 


lOTl FIFTH A1E1\IJE. ]\EW YORK 38, l^.Y.